empowering our students

Strengthening congregational schools through a new Israel approach

It’s Sunday morning! Mordechai, our Israel educator, pulls up in his big Zoom tour bus, live from Israel. When the first class ended, David Kessler, a high school senior from New Jersey remarked, “I learned more in one morning with Mordechai than I did all of last year in public school.”

Shortly after the pandemic hit, our proud team of directors from four synagogue schools came together in the spirit of collaboration to create meaningful Jewish experiences for our teens: Congregation Ohr Shalom, Summit, NJ; Temple Beth Shalom, Livingston, NJ; Temple Beth Sholom, Roslyn, NY; United Synagogue of Hoboken, NJ. We soon realized how much we all could benefit from coordinating our efforts and aligning financial resources.

A centerpiece of all our schools is Israel education, so Jewish National Fund-USA’s Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI-JNF) became a natural partner for the team. We decided at the outset of our collaboration that we wanted to not only present facts and information, but delve deeper into what makes Israel tick; what makes it so important and unique. We wanted to empower our students to become active partners in their own education by linking the stories learned to their own personal history and Jewish identity. As the relationship between Israel and the Jewish diaspora evolves, and as young Jews in particular drift away from our shared history, Israel education has become more vital than ever. 

Our Israel Education project has three main goals: 1) Connect Jewish teens to the State of Israel in genuine, nuanced, and meaningful ways; 2) Utilize techniques of experiential education successful in camps and Israel programs in a synagogue school setting; and 3) Carve out a common virtual space for our teens. 

In order to accomplish these three objectives, we needed an educator who could serve as a dugma eesheet (a personal example) for our students. Our Israel educator would have to radiate enthusiasm and organically captivate teens when it came to learning about the Jewish State. We wanted our learners to feel – through both the head and the heart – a personal investment towards Israel. 

Put simply, education is best shared through passion. In Mordechai, we found an ideal partner for the job. We found someone who not only emanated love and enthusiasm for the material, but had a tangible connection to Israel as well. This connectivity and personal investment was immediately evident in Mordechai’s lessons. Perhaps most importantly, Mordechai was able to translate a sense of Israeli pride to our students. This concept is at the core of good education; being inspired and inspiring others. 

Right away, our teens were hooked. “I can’t believe how into that Spy class both of my boys were,” a mother from Congregation Ohr Shalom remarked. “The kids fought each other to tell us the stories!” With topics ranging from the history of “Israeli Spies,” “The Great and Complicated Heroes of Israel,” and deep dives into Israeli music, culture and holidays, each session brought creative, collaborative elements to the screen. 

Take a glimpse into one of Mordechai’s magical sessions: The Israeli elections are two days away. Mordechai shows the students an image of an Israeli voting booth. He asks the group, “What is different about this voting booth?” One teen answers, “It’s in Hebrew.” Another, “It’s not touch screen, it’s all paper ballots.” Mordechai explains that the Israeli voting booths are just like 70 years ago, still the paper system! He tells the learners, “Anyone can start a political party and run. We sometimes have 50 parties running!” Mordechai then teaches students the significance of 120 members of Knesset, taking them back to the days of the Great Assembly. Finally, he leads them inside the Knesset building where the seats in the main chamber floor are shaped like a Menorah, “Can you see the design? Why is it shaped like a menorah?” The fascinated teens eagerly discuss. 

Not surprisingly, Mordechai’s weekly classes have captivated not only our students, but our educators as well. “Mordechai has inspired both teachers and teens to view Israel as part of “their” complex history and responsibility,” says Grace Gurman Chan, Education Director at United Synagogue of Hoboken, New Jersey “We are each an integral part of the ever-evolving story of Jewish history, and it’s vital that we do not study through the lens of an outsider, but from the center of things.” Educators from all four schools have woven aspects of the sessions into their own classes. 

While this past year has been one of upheaval and reconfiguration for Jewish education programs, the pandemic also served to accentuate our specific educational needs. For too long, many schools have had neither the resources nor personnel necessary to build programs that foster a sense of Jewish identity and pride. By utilizing modern technology and bringing our schools together in innovative ways, we have learned that these obstacles need not be insurmountable. “Jewish National Fund-USA’s virtual education experience began very soon after the pandemic closed the doors to many of our institutions. What Stacey, Sharon, as well as other cutting-edge educators suggested to us was groundbreaking,” remarks Richard Abrams, M.A.J.E., Israel Programs Admissions Director, NJ and Eastern PA. “Working with the gifted and enthusiastic educator, Mordechai Cohen, has been the metaphoric cherry on top!”  

The manner by which we’ve brought Israel education to dozens of Jewish teens during the pandemic is replicable for congregational schools across the country. Our secret ingredient was our educator and partnership with AMHSI-JNF, as well as our refusal to shy away from important and even controversial topics regarding Israeli politics, history, society and people. Ultimately, it’s our hope that through partnerships such as the one built with AMHSI-JNF, our teens will merge their lives with our shared Jewish history, and in doing so, refine their world-view through a new lens, a personal Jewish lens. 

Mordechai summed it up best. On the last Sunday morning of our series, “The Great and Complicated Heroes,” Mordechai told the story of Emanuel Ringelblum and the Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto, “Oyneg Shabbes.” This group collected as many diverse materials as possible on Jewish life in the ghetto. Ringelblum and his collaborators met secretly on Shabbat. They realized how important it was to write their own history rather than let the Nazis do so. They reached out to ordinary people in the ghetto. They handed out notebooks to Jews and encouraged them to record their daily experiences. Ordinary people were trained, rather than professional historians, and they became ‘an army of collectors’ – sources of history which would be passed onto future generations. Mordechai reminded us that we need to “write our own history and our own memories.” Every Sunday morning, he empowered our teens to see themselves as the future of the Jewish people and writers of Jewish history.

Yael Brenner is the Confirmation teacher at Congregation Ohr Shalom, Summit Jewish Community Center, Summit, NJ and the Assistant Director of Hillel at Baruch, City College, John Jay, Pace, SVA, FIT, Fordham and New School. Stacey David is the Education Director at Congregation Ohr Shalom, Summit Jewish Community Center, Summit, NJ. Sharon Solomon is the Educational Director at Temple Beth Sholom at Temple Beth Sholom, Roslyn Heights NY.